Akaroa woman Tracey Foley lives in Chopper Country – a fact that hit home when pregnant with her daughter seven years ago.
At seven months, Tracy started bleeding and went into early labour at her home on isolated Banks Peninsula.
She started driving towards Christchurch Hospital – over rugged hills and along exposed ridges - but the hour-and-a-half journey was too far in her condition. Contractions had started and fearing the worst, she had to pull over and call 111 for help.
The Westpac Rescue Helicopter arrived and transferred Tracey to the hospital where a specialist team were waiting to assist her and her premature baby daughter, who both survived the ordeal due to the chopper’s quick response.
Akaroa is famous for being a holiday get-away from Christchurch with its rare Hector’s dolphin and its French colonial history.
But tourists coming into the small town on cruise ships, as well as local residents, fall victim to medical emergencies in the remote area.
The Akaroa Village Inn is located opposite the main wharf where ships of tourists dock frequently and the Inn’s owner, Darren Angus, says he sees the chopper once every couple of weeks, depending on how busy the area is.
“Normally I see the Westpac Rescue Helicopter fly overhead towards its landing point in the recreation ground. I don’t look forward to seeing or hearing the helicopter because something has obviously gone wrong, but knowing that it’s available gives comfort to the permanent residents in Akaroa. We don’t have a hospital here, so it’s vital to have the service for locals and tourists and it gives us the feeling of safety and comfort.”
Dr Alexander Shaw, one of two GPs in Akaroa, also sees the helicopter at least once a fortnight.
“I have seen some truly amazing flying and consistently excellent patient care from the exceptionally skilled team of pilots and intensive care paramedics,” he said.
“Without a doubt, the Westpac chopper is a vital asset and saves lives as well as giving very sick patients the very best chance of a full recovery. During the tourist season we have a huge population influx and our population of 2,000 in the Akaroa area can surge up to 10,000. In those times we have been known to requite the helicopter two or even three times in a day,” Dr Shaw added.
In 2018, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter from the Canterbury region attended 42 missions to Akaroa, said chopper crew chief and intensive care paramedic Rick Knight.
“We uplifted six patients from cruise ships last year, five being medical incidents and one being an accident. The other 36 missions were between the township proper and locations on the Akaroa peninsular itself,” Knight added.
The crew’s flight time from the chopper base to Akaroa takes approximately 12 minutes, depending on weather conditions, compared to what would take an hour and a half by a driving ambulance. The quick chopper service is therefore critical for patients who need urgent care at Christchurch Hospital.